President Biden’s stance toward China hardened this month when he issued an executive order prohibiting American investment in Chinese companies developing advanced technologies that could be used by the military.
But a growing chorus of critics, including some Democrats, argue that the administration’s effort to grapple with America’s foremost adversary is contradictory, illustrated in the White House’s Beijing-empowering pursuit of ambitious climate-change goals. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, as the White House has called for, will almost assuredly make the United States dependent on China while enriching Beijing.
China currently holds a commanding position in the clean energy industry, controlling the natural resources and manufacturing the components essential to the Biden administration’s desired alternative-energy transition. Energy experts believe that its dominance will become more entrenched because of domestic environmentalist opposition to perceived “dirty” mining and refining operations, and the Biden administration’s “clean energy” spending blitz – which could provide Chinese companies and subsidiaries with billions in subsidies.
The Biden administration also considers it imperative to get buy-in from Beijing on reducing emissions, given that China produces more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. Biden administration critics see China as an unreliable partner that will leverage the administration’s desire for it to go green to its own advantage.
“China,” says Senator John Barrasso (R-Wy.), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, “is playing us for suckers.”
China’s alternative energy clout comes from its command over supply chains that culminate in the production of wind turbines, solar panels, and lithium-ion batteries on which the net zero transition depends. On top of its own large domestic reserves, it has invested in mines worldwide and grown into a global hub for raw material refining and processing.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, China is the leading producer of 30 of 50 minerals, including rare earth metals, that the U.S. government deems critical, particularly for usage in energy technologies. Rare earth metals are integral to the magnets key to electric vehicle motors and wind turbines. America is 95% net import-reliant on such materials, which China produces 70% of globally. According to the International Energy Agency, the PRC dominates “across the [rare earth] value chain from mining to processing and magnet production.”
Other critical minerals for clean-energy technologies include: copper, which his key to solar cells, wind turbines, and electric vehicles; cobalt, key to lithium-ion batteries; nickel, also key to such batteries and in renewable-energy storage; and lithium itself. China is the world’s largest refiner of all these minerals and produces 50-70% of all lithium and cobalt globally. The U.S. has no refining capacity for many of the same materials.
The Energy Policy Research Foundation concluded, in a report supported by the RealClearFoundation (which also funds RealClearInvestigations), that “replacing oil and gas with metal-intensive renewables and batteries risks further reinforcing China’s dominance in these critical minerals, at the expense of the energy security of most of the world.”
“By cultivating leadership in clean energy technologies,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has assessed, “Beijing is seeking to profit from a global clean energy transition while further deepening its geoeconomic leverage.”
Some lawmakers worry that China might hold such leverage over Biden himself. In 2021, the New York Times reported that Hunter Biden had “helped secure cobalt for the Chinese” in 2016, while his father was vice president. The matter could resurface in connection with a potential impeachment probe into the Biden family’s alleged international influence peddling.
Acknowledging China’s alternative-energy prowess, and therefore U.S. dependence on Beijing to hit its green targets, the Biden administration has pushed legislation – including the Inflation Reduction Act, which allocates $369 billion in green subsidies and incentives, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which commits billions more – and sought to use executive authority and regulatory power to build America’s alternative energy infrastructure.
Republican lawmakers have criticized the Biden administration for imposing environmental restrictions they see as hamstringing the president’s stated agenda by blocking domestic projects that would unleash key natural resources.
The U.S. Army Corps revoked a key permit for a major domestic nickel-mining project in Minnesota, as recommended by the EPA, on grounds that it might not comply with the water quality requirements of a sovereign tribe downstream of the project. The Biden administration has also been reticent to engage in seabed mining, with U.S. Special Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry indicating the administration is “very wary of procedures that could disturb the ocean floor.” Even if America overcame these environmental concerns and fast-tracked mining projects, it’s not clear that it could sustain a wholly domestic clean energy industry.
RCI contacted trade groups representing the solar, wind, and electric industries present at a Treasury-led clean-power generation roundtable to ask them about the feasibility of decoupling from China, and whether and to what extent meeting the White House’s green goals would redound to China’s benefit, but did not receive any responses.
Neither the White House, Treasury Department, nor Kerry’s office responded to a series of related inquiries.
This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published August 17.